Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

Right from the start I will tell you that I don’t usually read this genre—the coming-of-age story of a teenage girl caught up in her parents’ stormy relationship—but there is one reason that I couldn’t put down The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (St. Martin's Press, February 2018). To say it in a word – Alaska.

Hannah’s vivid descriptions make America’s last frontier come alive. “It was otherworldly somehow, magical in its vast expanse, an incomparable landscape of soaring glacier-filled white mountains that ran the length of the horizon, knife-tip points pressed high into a cloudless cornflower-blue sky.”

In Hannah’s writing, all your senses are drawn into Alaska’s allure. “The air smelled briny, deeply of the sea. Shorebirds floated on the wind, dipped and rose effortlessly.”

This is Alaska, in all of its beauty and all the perils of living there. The extreme cold, the snowstorms, the brown bears and the packs of wolves, the king salmon and the bald eagles, and more than anything else, the isolation.

Thirteen-year-old Leni’s family has always been on the move, but never like this. Her father Ernt, a Vietnam vet, has a volatile personality. His spur-of-the-moment decision to move to Alaska with Leni and her mother, Cora, suggests not only a new beginning, but that Ernt has put his troublesome past behind. They set up a homestead on a remote coastland, joining a small-knit community of long term Alaskan residents. Most newcomers to the state don’t survive their first harsh winter, but Ernt pushes Cora and Leni to prepare. Still, the extremely severe conditions are nothing they have ever experienced.

Daylight in the winter months is limited to a few hours a day. The family’s isolation results in Ernt’s recurring nightmares. He becomes paranoid, jealous, violent. Leni is spared her father’s anger, but his abusive treatment of her mother comes in waves of madness.

The only comforting part of Leni’s life is her classmate Matthew, a neighbor who becomes her closest friend. When Ernt suspects Matthew’s father of flirting with Cora, he forbids Leni from seeing him. Like any Romeo-and-Juliet romance, this one, too, seems bound for a tragic ending.

If it were not for its setting, I would consider The Great Alone to be nothing more than well-written women’s fiction. Surely there have been other novels like this one, telling the story of a teenager struggling to survive her father’s rage and her mother’s silent acquiescence of her husband’s inability to change. But, The Great Alone transcends that genre.

“This state, this place, is like no other. It is beauty and horror; savior and destroyer. Here, where survival is a choice that must be made over and over in the wildest place in America, on the edge of civilization, where water in all its forms can kill you, you learn who you are... You learn what you will do to survive.”

The Great Alone sweeps you into a vast, untamed wilderness. There is no middle ground in Alaska, no safe place. You’ll find yourself captivated not only by the state’s unique beauty, but also by the author’s compelling narrative and her eloquent writing. Highly recommended!

Kristin Hannah is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than 20 novels including the international blockbuster, The Nightingale. A former-lawyer-turned writer, she lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband.

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